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Gettysburg: Word and Deed

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THE 130th anniversary of an event doesn't usually inspire particular commemoration. But the 130th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has come at a time when the battle itself is once again much in thought: ``Gettysburg,'' the new movie produced by Cable News mogul Ted Turner and written and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, is at theaters near us all.

War stories have a certain fascination for even the most unmartial among us. Peacemakers are uniquely blessed, but warmakers are uniquely heroic, caught up in the issues of action and inaction, of life and death, in a way that makes Hamlet pale by comparison. The American Civil War, even as it has faded from living memory, has long held a special place in the national psyche, and Gettysburg, the turning point of the war, a special place within that.

And so today, Civil War buffs are coming home after four-hours-and-something at the movie house to haul the big books down off the shelf and spend a few more hours considering the battle map again, reviewing the biography of this or that general.

A recommendation: That this latest film release spark a revival of interest in Garry Wills's book from last year, ``Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.''

Wills's thesis is that Lincoln seized the occasion of the dedication of the battlefield cemetery, some months after the fighting, to establish an ideal of equality as the quintessence of America: This ``new nation,'' he said, was ``dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'' In 272 words that mentioned no one by name or side or geographic location, he transcended the suffer-it-to-be-so-now ambiguities of slavery and the other detritus of imperfectly achieved ideals. From the Gettysburg Address ``all modern political prose descends.''


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